The Haunting and Hyperrealist Drawings of Evelyn De Morgan
When Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919) drew a floating head, dismembered arm and legless torso in the early years of the 20th century, the intent was not to create ghostly or other-worldly images. In fact, it is unlikely that she expected anyone to see these drawings at all. The English artist, who made a name for herself as the most accomplished female painter of the late Pre-Raphaelite period, was skilfully putting chalk to paper in preparation for her better-known paintings. More than 100 years later, however, these hyperrealistic studies – which were integral to De Morgan’s working method – take on a haunting appearance, revealing the artist’s undeniable talent for drawing, as well as her ability to convey sensitively the emotion, vulnerability and strength of the female form.
De Morgan was born Mary Evelyn Pickering into an upper-middle-class family in London, England. Her uncle John Roddam Spencer Stanhope's close ties to accomplished artists, including George Frederic Watts, instilled in her an interest in art early on. At the age of 15, she enrolled in drawing lessons, and in 1872 she joined the Royal College of Art (formerly the South Kensington National Art Training School). When the Slade School of Art began accepting women the following year, De Morgan transferred, and it was here that she truly began to develop her artistic approach. In addition to receiving a full scholarship, De Morgan’s talent was acknowledged through numerous accolades, including various prizes and medals for her drawings and compositions. By the age of 21, she had sold and exhibited her first works.
Over the next 40 years, De Morgan’s paintings came to define her as an artist. They were so popular that, when she married ceramicist William De Morgan in 1887, the sale of her works ensured the couple’s financial security for nearly 20 years (until William published his first novel, Joseph Vance, in 1906). While this was somewhat unconventional in a patriarchial age, the artist’s independence was characteristic of her values and beliefs. She vocally rebelled against society’s expectations of women and advocated passionately for their rights, supporting the women's suffragist movement and imbuing her paintings with strong female characters and feminist narratives. “The great majority of her images include women as protagonists, often as allegorical personifications but with an unusually wide range of characteristics,” wrote Elise Lawton Smith in a 1997 essay on De Morgan. “She created women as members of a constructed and constraining civilization, who exhibit at times a sort of dropping resignation, but she also represented women as powerful natural elements, actively in control of their destinies.” De Morgan was also strongly opposed to the First World War and deeply interested in spiritualism – two subjects which similarly found a place in her body of work.
Whereas De Morgan’s paintings were bold, colourful and dynamic, her preparatory drawings were quieter and more carefully composed. Here, she would explore the intricacies of the female form, from the details of limbs and skin to expressions and emotions. In Study of a Nude Shoulder and Arm – one of four drawings donated to the National Gallery of Canada – the model’s right arm emerges subtly from the brown paper. Hints of her collarbone peek through the soft application of light and dark pastels, whereas her shoulder, fingers, nails and knuckles are clearly defined. “With just three colours – white, black and red – De Morgan was able to convey a body,” says Sonia Del Re, the Gallery's Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings. “Her studies may appear unfinished, yet from these sketches De Morgan was able to determine the pose of a figure in her painting.”
Sketched some eight years earlier, De Morgan's study Nude Woman Bending over and Clutching her Head is comparable in style and approach. The model’s strong body is deeply expressive, telling a story through its contours and curves. “The face is not clearly defined, but it does not need to be,” says Del Re. “The body speaks to the figure’s pain and sorrow. De Morgan's ability to express human emotion in these drawings is really remarkable.”
This sensitivity did not always translate into her paintings. This is especially apparent when comparing the Gallery’s third recently donated drawing Study of a Female Head (c.1908) with its accompanying painting, Daughters of the Mist (1900–19), now in the De Morgan Collection. This colourful scene is rooted in Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 story of The Little Mermaid and portrays four angelic figures that float above the clouds and a rainbow, representing a bridge between life and death. Whereas the painting clearly embodies De Morgan’s interest in allegory and spiritualism, it is a stark contrast to her drawing.
In the chalk study, a woman’s head stands out from the brown paper. Her facial features are delicate and soft, and her expression is melancholy. “She is ghostly yet incredibly realistic,” says Del Re. “We get the sense that she’s feeling something, rather than looking at something. It is interesting how a few pastel colours can convey more emotion than a spectrum of paint.”
Until recently, De Morgan’s skills as a draftswoman were largely unknown. In fact, when the present drawing appeared at auction in 1966, it was wrongly attributed to the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. Recent scholarship, however, has paid closer attention to De Morgan’s studies, offering insight into her meticulous working process, as well as her personal interests and beliefs. “Just like the figures in her drawings and paintings, De Morgan was an equally strong and sensitive woman. She provided for her family, advocated for women’s rights and was outspoken against the war,” says Del Re. Evidently, De Morgan deserves recognition for her social consciousness, just as her drawings merit a closer look.
The four chalk drawings by Evelyn De Morgan have been donated to the Department of Prints & Drawings of the National Gallery of Canada by Dennis T. Lanigan of Saskatoon and Douglas E. Schoenherr of Ottawa. For more information on the artist and her work, see the Gallery's collection online and visit the De Morgan Foundation website. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.